Josh Drinkwater’s arrival at Catalans Dragons in late April sparked a turnaround in form which has been nothing short of sensational. The man who joined the club as a replacement for Luke Walsh – forced into retirement due to injury – arrived with the club sitting bottom of Super League but now, four months down the line, the Dragons have been one of the teams to watch for the second half of the season and, on Saturday, will walk out at Wembley for an unlikely second Challenge Cup final appearance against Warrington Wolves. Ahead of that clash, the Australian told Get ’em Onside that, despite joining the team propping up the table in Spring, he had no hesitation about signing.
“It didn’t faze me,” he explained, “the quality of players they had on paper was clear and I knew I was coming to a good team.” The 26-year-old Australian’s arrival came after the club had to say goodbye to Walsh and, with the former St Helens half-back missing the vast majority of the early season, Drinkwater admitted that his absence was clearly affecting the team when he arrived. “Losing him was obviously hindering them and they just needed a half back to free everyone else up and play there own natural game.”
Drinkwater turned out to be that half back and his return to Super League was a swift one following relegation in 2017 with the Leigh Centurions. Upon their defeat in the Million Pound Game – against his future employers – Drinkwater’s contract with the club was terminated and, for the early part of 2018, he found himself back in his homeland playing for Western Suburbs Magpies in the New South Wales Cup. Admitting that he wasn’t sure how 2018 would go after leaving Super League, Drinkwater continued by adding that he had always backed himself to return to the top level. “I always thought I was good enough to play first grade whether that be in the NRL or Super League, I just needed to be patient and play good footy in reserve grade back home and wait for chance,” he articulated.
It would be fair to say that the vast majority of rugby league fans didn’t foresee the impact Drinkwater has had on Catalans since arriving. It has been suggested that, such has been his pivotal role in the Perpignan club’s turnaround, he is wanted by many Super League clubs. Drinkwater, though, was keen to praise his teammates for giving him the platform to play – and star – from. “If you ask any half back you can’t play good unless you have a good forward pack, and I think we have one of if not the best in the comp. then off the back of that Steve let’s me play a style of footy which isn’t to structured and allows me to play what I see and have freedom to play all over the field and not be pigeon holed into one side which I haven’t had before.”
That freedom to play as he sees fit has been one of many reasons Steve McNamara’s team went on to easily save their Super League status and reach the Challenge Cup semi-finals, a stage where the Dragons pulled off one of the shocks of this rugby league season by toppling runaway league leaders St Helens in a 35-16 win. “The semi final was a great result,” Drinkwater confirmed before acknowledging the team’s confidence heading into the match. Continuing, “we came up with a plan to try and get into saints early and pressure them,” something the Dragons clearly did as they raced into a 27-0 half time lead.
It was the sort of performance teams dream of putting in on the big stage and it is one Drinkwater and Catalans will be keen to reproduce at Wembley this Saturday. Since their victory over Saints, though, the team have struggled in Super League; a heavy defeat at final opponents Warrington was followed by a home loss to Wigan Warriors last weekend and Drinwater confessed that the team’s last two matches haven’t been great. However, while acknowledging that the Dragons have found it tough, he explained that it gave some players a chance to freshen up for the final. “It’s pretty obvious we can’t make the four in Super League so our focus has been on this final and fortunately we’ve come through the last 2 weeks well injury wise,” he expressed. “We’ve rotated the squad to try and rest up and get niggling injuries under control,” Drinkwater added. Indeed, the Australian is one of those to get a rest in the last fortnight as the vast majority of McNamara’s first choice seventeen have missed at least one of the Dragons’ last two.
However, it is likely that, barring experienced Australian Greg Bird (suspension), Catalans will have a strong squad of players to pick from as they aim to lift their first silverware since joining Super League in 2006. After starting the year in reserve grade rugby in Australia, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Drinkwater is looking forward to Saturday. “I’m obviously very excited for Wembley and is will be the biggest game of my career to date,” he shared. “Finals don’t come around often so we want to enjoy it!” With an eye on how the team will approach the match, the former London and Leigh pivot believes keeping calm on the pitch is key. “I’ve got to make sure that once we kickoff we stick to our plan and make sure we don’t go away from what works and not get caught up in the emotion of the occasion,” he noted.
Indeed, keeping calm is something that Drinkwater has shown in spades since arriving in Perpignan and, while many thought he would simply be a stop-gap until the club could find a more permanent half back, the Australian’s sensational performances have left many other Super League clubs interested. Having only signed a deal to the end of this season when he joined the club and having not – as of yet – signed a new deal, Drinkwater admits there has been interest from elsewhere. He did, however, outline how happy he is in the south of France. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here and the French lifestyle I’ve been in talks with the club and a couple of others and I’m sure it will get sorted soon,” he expressed and, when asked whether there is an element of anxiety as he nears the end of his current deal, he pointed at his experience with Leigh as an example that things could be worse. “Obviously being off contract can be stressful but after what I went through the relegation I’m a lot more comfortable and can put it to one side.”
His impressive performances will no doubt see the Dragons keen to keep the man who has been a star of 2018. Such has been his impact on the team, Drinkwater is the second highest points scorer thus far in the Challenge Cup this year, just two points off Bryson Goodwin’s forty four. If he can overtake his fellow Australian’s tally at Wembley on Saturday, the Dragons fans will certainly be hoping even more that they can secure the services of one of the most in-form half backs in Super League.